It’s that time of year. Families are coming together and preparing to partake in that time-honored tradition that defines the season. In the coming weeks, cousins and uncles will sit at tables loaded with traditional yuletide treats engaging in that classic debate: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? For more than a decade, film scholars have debated this question. The conversation has helped define the idea of what makes a Christmas movie. While Die Hard certainly has elements that plant it in both pro and con camps, its status as a Christmas film will always be debated. While Joe Dante’s 1984 holiday classic, Gremlins, is not only a Christmas movie, it’s a perfect holiday film.
What criteria separates a film that takes place over the holiday season, any Shane Black outing, from an actual Christmas movie. A December 23rd, 2018 edition of The Hollywood Reporter tried to define what makes a Christmas movie. The release date or setting, marketing, or genre do not determine a Christmas movie. What defines a Christmas film is how the individual holiday influences the plot and its character’s motivations. People act differently over the holidays. Would George Bailey’s suicidal breakdown sting nearly as much without the juxtaposition of holiday cheer surrounding him? Would George’s realization of the value of one man’s life feel as triumphant without him running down the streets of Bedford Falls shouting Merry Christmas? It’s the impact of Christmas that defines a film’s status. Such as the case with Gremlins.
The story of the 1980s was one of Reaganomics, corporatism, and greed. Shows like Dallas and Dynasty, films like Wall Street, The Secret of My Success and Trading Places, glorified wealth, and the quest to attain riches. Money and consumerism defined the decade and its pop culture.
Gremlins opens on Rand Peltzer, a brilliant, independent inventor who doesn’t quite fit in his era. Peltzer sees himself as a would-be Edison. He’d love to be a shameless self-promoter, but his products aren’t that good. He would have fit in perfectly in the early decades of the century with his charm and hustle. But in this corporate world, he struggles to keep relevant and provide for his family. While lost in Chinatown, he encounters a mystical shop and its somewhat stereotypical Asian shopkeeper who keeps a collection of artifacts both for sale and some that are not (why are they in the shop if they aren’t for sale?). Peltzer discovers a small, adorable creature and desires to give it to his son for Christmas. The old man refuses, but his grandson, knowing the family’s need for money, makes a deal and lays out the ground rules for owning the creature. There’s a good chance that had the inventor found the shop in the summer, he probably still would have wanted the mogwai. It’s the impending Christmas season and the need to find the perfect gift, and the struggling immigrant family’s need for financial survival launch the story.
Peltzer runs home to the Norman Rockwell-esque town of Kingston Falls, a city that bears more than a passing resemblance to the town from It’s A Wonderful Life. His son, Billy, wants to be a cartoonist but instead finds himself living at home and working as a bank teller. Billy has more vision and imagination than most people his age. He finds himself more comfortable with kids than with his peers. Like his father, Billy doesn’t fit in his world and gets lectured by his boss, a classic 80s stooge character and the bank’s Scrooge-ish owner. Being a bit of an iconoclast himself, Rand understands his son and gives him a gift that no one else could possibly own. Billy and the Mogwai, who he names “Gizmo”, forge an immediate bond. But Billy’s irresponsibility during the delivery of a Christmas tree leads to water spilling on the creature. Gizmo spawns a batch of new mogwai, who aren’t as lovable as the original. Rand’s immediate instinct is to market the mogwai as “the Peltzer pet,” instead of understanding the danger of a creature who can spontaneously reproduce. It’s a commentary on artisanship and mass production.
The infant Mogwais understand their hidden potential and outsmart Billy, who classically feeds them after midnight. The Mogawis transformation into the titular monsters jump-starts the movie’s third act. The Gremlins are beings of pure consumption. They devour everything in their path, not just food and drink. They overindulge in all of humanity’s worst elements. The Gremlins are unbridled consumerism. They have no love for each other as a species, only caring for what they can grab that second. They’re Black Friday shoppers with practical special effects.
The film ends when the family, which now includes Gizmo and Billy’s girlfriend, Kate, defeat Stripe, the final Gremlin, before he can spawn again. In one night, the monsters have destroyed the idyllic town, laying it to waste with their need to take more. Is that any different from the way consumers would have left a mall in the era? The film ends when the mystical Asian man returns to collect Gizmo, telling Rand that the world isn’t ready for the mogwai. The old man takes one last look at the idealistic Billy and ponders if maybe someday that could change.
The film is a cautionary tale, warning of the dark side of the season and America’s tendency to warp everything into a financial opportunity. As with most monster movies, the film’s real evil is humanity’s quest to continually take more than it needs, even on a holiday that’s supposed to be about generosity. Gremlins a dark mirror held up to society at its worst. Its holiday message is one of warning. This is what can happen to our most beloved holiday if we aren’t careful.
Merry Christmas and remember the reason for the season…or else.